Asbestos mulch in schools

What’s happening and how the union can help

In the past few months, mulch contaminated with asbestos has been discovered at some 75 sites (and counting) in greater Sydney, including parks, hospitals, median strips, aged care facilities, and schools.

The far-reaching environmental health issue was first uncovered in the Rozelle parklands in Sydney’s inner west in January. But with more locations still being found, the full extent of the contamination may not be known for some time.

Inhaling asbestos over a long period of time can cause chronic lung diseases, including asbestosis and mesothelioma, which is a type of cancer.

However, asbestos comes in two forms that pose different levels of risk. Non-friable asbestos is mixed with bonding materials, such as cement. Friable asbestos can be turned into a powder by hand, which poses a more serious risk to health due to airborne fibres.

The NSW Environment Protection Agency has established an asbestos taskforce to manage the outbreak. Information on impacted sites and whether they have been remediated is updated regularly and can be accessed by the public.

In conversations with our members and their employers, the IEU has become aware of instances where individual schools and employers are taking a proactive approach to managing risk.

We commend these schools for undertaking additional testing and implementing safety measures. We support this cautious approach for staff, students, families and school communities, even when the risk of asbestos being present is low, as well as in cases where the NSW Environment Protection Agency has already undertaken asbestos testing.

A small number of Catholic and independent schools in Sydney have been named in media coverage as confirmed or potential sites of asbestos contamination. Some schools made the decision to close temporarily for testing and, if necessary, remediation. Both Domremy College in Five Dock and St Luke’s Catholic College in Marsden Park closed for brief periods.

The union appreciates that schools will take action based on their specific circumstances and the needs of students and staff.

As always, the IEU is here for members who may have workplace healthy and safety (WHS) issues.

“If you have concerns about asbestos or other WHS issues impacting your school, please contact the IEU for advice and support,” said IEU Organiser Lee Cunningham.